Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Farmers Gaining Support In Water Rate Hike

Casitas staff hears protest about 53 percent hike for agricultural customers

By Daryl Kelley
Papered with dozens of protest letters from farmers and their supporters, directors of the Ojai Valley's largest water agency will consider today arguments that a 53 percent hike in the cost to water crops could begin to change this bucolic region forever.
Already staggered by record winds and freezes during winter, some farmers say the rate increases could force them out of business, or to drill deep wells that would deplete the aquifers that provide the valley's groundwater.
They argue that the entire valley benefits from their existence, through tourist tax dollars, clearer air, education and nutrition programs and an overall ambiance that makes Ojai a good place to live.
And now farmers are proposing that Casitas Municipal Water District fundamentally change the way it charges for water, spreading costs to all customers with a meter, including those who use Casitas only as a backup system, instead of charging primarily on how much water a customer uses.
Farmers, who use nearly half of the district's water, have historically paid a reduced rate because the Casitas Dam and waterworks were originally built partly to foster agriculture in the Ojai Valley.
And now they're getting support for their campaign to keep their rates low.
“Without agriculture this valley would change tremendously,” said Scott Eicher, chief executive officer of the Ojai Valley Chamber of Commerce, summarizing his letter to the board of the Casitas Municipal Water Agency.
“Agriculture is part of economy, along with our tourism and our education,” he said. “But it's also part of our culture. And if those fields become empty, they won't be empty for long. They'll fill them up with houses.”
The Casitas board tentatively approved two months ago water rate hikes of more than 50 percent for agricultural customers and about 30 percent for nine retail agencies that resell water to customers throughout the valley and in western Ventura.
But the rates on about 2,600 homes in the Oak View and Mira Monte areas that hook directly into the Casitas system remained the same.
Casitas provides water for about 65,000 people and nearly 5,700 acres of farmland in the Ojai Valley and Ventura area.
Notified of the increases in July, customers have until the end of today to file letters of protest. If a majority do not, the rates will take effect this Saturday following approval of a resolution today by the Casitas board.
Through Monday, Casitas had received 47 protests, said Ron Merckling, district spokesman.
“The large majority of those were from agricultural customers. And I've received 13 phone calls. One person called three times.”
In one protest letter, Ventura attorney Robert Baskin, who owns a five-acre orchard near Ojai, said that he is one of the small farmers who would be driven out of business by the rate increase. His orchard already loses money, and the increase “will cause many small orchard owners to begin the process of abandoning their orchards.”
“This (orchard) greenbelt surrounds our homes and cities, provides beauty, improves our water shed and air quality and helps to provide a buffer of protection for fire control,” Baskin wrote. “As these orchards are abandoned ... Casitas will generate less revenue, not more. ... The end result is that you will be contributing to the squeezing out of small family orchards, the drilling of wells on larger ranches, and a loss of quality of life for the Ojai Valley.”
In another letter, longtime east valley ranchers Jim Coultas, Jim Churchill and Roger Essick proposed a basic shift in how Casitas charges for water. The current system unfairly loads the bulk of costs on the backs of farmers, they said.
“With this letter we mean to open a constructive dialogue with the board ... “ they wrote. “Ojai's agricultural community recognizes the importance of maintaining the district's infrastructure and is not in principle opposed to adjusting water rates to accomplish that.”
Now, Casitas charges administrative, overhead and delivery costs based primarily on how much water a customer receives. That means that 257 farmers who use 44 percent of the district's water, pay the most. And nine retail water agencies that receive 37 percent of its water, including the city of Ventura water department, pay nearly a third of the cost. Residential customers, who use only 9 percent of water, pay far less.
The farmers asked the board to consider charging all customers with a meter, including those who would receive water only in emergencies, to maintain the pipes, pumps and tanks that would bring the water to them. That would mean that water users in Ojai, Meiners Oaks and Casitas Springs would be charged a maintenance fee even though they receive their water from other agencies.
“Agriculture these days is a perilous occupation,” wrote Coultas, Churchill and Essick. “Citrus in the Ojai Valley is economically marginal at best. If costs go high enough, people aren't going to continue to do it. This will lead to idle land, which one way or another will dramatically change the culture of the Ojai Valley.”
A key consideration in final Casitas board action is a 2006 State Supreme Court decision in which justices ruled that Proposition 218, passed by voters in 1996, requires equitable distribution of water costs.
Even with the farmers' rate proposed to increase from $208 an acre- foot to $312, they would still pay far less than the $667 charged to residential customers. (An acre-foot of water meets the needs of two typical households for a year.)
Casitas officials have said they might be able to legally justify the lower rate because agricultural users do not need the high quality water delivered to their orchards since a sophisticated treatment plant was built a decade ago to meet state drinking water standards.
If all costs, including treatment, were included, farmers would pay $521 an acre-foot, 150 percent more than they pay today, analysts said. The proposed $312 farmers' rate covers the bulk of their water's $365 basic cost, but none of the $165 per acre-foot treatment cost, they said.
But farmers see Proposition 218 in a different light.
Coultas, Churchill and Essick wrote: “We believe that in attempting to apply Prop. 218 ... you have done exactly what Prop. 218 was meant to prevent, which is unfairly load a disproportionate share of the costs onto one class of user. ... We believe that your current model and proposed rates cause agriculture to subsidize other classes of user.”
The farmers propose a more sophisticated cost analysis.
“To carry out the mandate of Prop. 218 the very least you must do is examine the budget categories individually and determine for each category whether its costs should be allocated based on volume of water used or on number of meters for that class of customer. ... Administrative costs should be recovered through meter charges; pumping costs should be recovered through water charges.”
The water rate hearing is set for today at 4:30 p.m. at the Casitas headquarters on state Highway 33 in Oak View.

No comments: